Monday, December 31, 2007

1257-mile day ride: All of Baja through race traffic...

Riding 1000+ miles in a day is one thing.
Riding those miles in Mexico is another.
Riding those miles in Mexico, during the Baja 1000 is yet another...


A portion of a ride last month was a 700-mile trek ...

…to pick up a small box at UPS.

Couple weeks ago saw a ride that was even longer to support KTM in their Baja 1000 effort.

I had to work Monday night and the race was starting Tuesday at 6am! The pit where I would need to be was south of Ciudad Constitution – almost exactly 1000 miles from my place.

The overall concept was pretty basic – leave my place early enough to beat the racers to that pit. As I’d be on pavement, it seemed this would be a relatively easy task. The devil however was waiting in the details … things such as my needing a Visa for the southern portion of Baja – those offices don’t open up until around 9ish. Waiting around a border town to get the Visa would make it very difficult to arrive on time.

The solution was to head to a Mexican consulate office stateside & get the Visa. Once you have that it can be paid for in any bank in Mexico, so long as you haven’t crossed the boundary line where it’s required. I figured I would then be able to cross the border around sunrise and stop at a bank in San Quintin just as they’re opening…

So … that detail seemed to be taken care of, now it would be a simple matter of prepping the 950 for a long road ride. Nice thing about that bike … the prep consisted of putting the stock tires & stock sprocket back on.

That’s pretty much it …

Some other unnecessary (but nice) details were transferring the Zumo & XM from the GS over to the KTM, adding a camera mount, and strapping a fuel tank to the back.

…and by fuel tank, I mean laundry detergent bottle. It actually worked quite nicely – the button spout makes a perfect pressure release valve:

The cockpit for the next 1200ish miles:

After playing around with some headphone routing ideas, the bike was ready for it’s 4am start the following morning…


In the pre-dawn darkness the bike fired up & I left, rolling a bit of tape along the near-empty streets and eventually onto the freeway. Shortly after purchasing the 950 in ’05 I put the 16T countershaft sprocket on and have never switched back. For this ride I decided to try the 17T as it would 90+% high-speed highway droning. This thing was plenty fast with the 16T, with the 17T it was downright … well, fast.

Rolling out … towards the 1st of two sunrises I would see this ride.

Really the biggest benefit of the change wasn’t so much speed as much as fuel economy. Saving those extra few hundred RPMs adds up over these distances – didn’t even need my spare fuel.

Just as the sun was reaching the top of the hills to the east, I hit the border crossing.

At nearly the same moment I rolled across this gate, the first bike was leaving the start line in Ensenada … there was now some serious time to make up.

Riding along the border fence… US on the right, Mexico on the left.

The ride south was interesting. I’d become so accustomed to being in Ensenada or someplace on the course around racetime that it’s easy to forget that life is happening all over outside the course. Weather as a racer or support person, an event of this magnitude really focuses you – dims all the cares of regular life to the point they’re barely an afterthought. Probably what causes people to risk life, limb, and possible financial peril to purse a finish line waiting at the end of over 1000 miles of punishment. A social anthropologist could make a career out of this one event alone. While I didn’t stop much on the way down, toll booths, fuel stops, whatever … anything that shut the motor off for a few minutes allowed the opportunity to pause, maybe chat with whoever was around. Most people I encountered were at least aware of the race, but had little grasp of the sheer distances involved. When traveling in Mexico, especially rural Mexico, should you have to ask for directions never reference the [I]destination[/I]. Rather, reference the next nearest town in the direction you're headed. Even in the urban areas I was traveling through, many people had little familiarity with the town at the end of my journey.

Going around the line of chase traffic at a military checkpoint:

The main source of traffic for the first part of my ride (being the first 10 hours or so) was chase traffic. Fortunately, for the most part I was headed in the same direction as the traffic – I’d learn later there was a series of grave head-on collisions occurring just behind me during the night hours as the ride went further south.

The whole “be careful about the traffic” admonition was NOT lost on me. I received the occasional reminder while I was on the road trying to pass… sure is nice being in a narrow vehicle.

The traffic going through Ensenada was MUCH heavier than I expected. The bikes were long gone by the time I rolled into town, but trucks were still leaving the line. The malecon was in full swing with spectator traffic. I poked through town, & checked a couple of the spots where I thought I might encounter some of the team … turns out they has already split before I got there. It was expected, but did serve as a reminder that I really had to keep moving.

San Quintin appeared on the horizon a bit later than I had hoped due to the pace getting through Ensenada. I was already pretty late so a quick stop at my in-laws place to drop off some letters & such was in order. I had no idea it had been raining the night before as it was an absolutely perfect day. First hint I had was when I pulled off the main highway & made my way to the house…

After a quick visit it was off to the bank to take care of the Visa & by this time figured I’d grab something to eat. A serious meal seems to put me to sleep droning along the tarmac … so brunch consisted of a powerbar-like thing & a Red Bull :thumb

Chez Don Chuy

About an hour south of San Quintin is where I caught up with the first group of KTM guys – at the AMAZINGLY crowded gas station in El Rosario. Between El Rosario & Guerro Negro is the longest stretch without a gas station so pretty much everyone with any intention of going south fills up here. I was no different & this is where I filled up the detergent jug. After a brief chat with the team they asked what pit I’d be working … after informing them the response was something to the effect of [I]“you’ve got a LONG way to go … you’d better get moving”[/I].

So I did.


The road south of El Rosario is beautiful in it’s own way … so bleak in parts it’s fascinating. As you move south the desert displays features, some of which are unique in all the world to this place. There’s a lot to see just by taking short but extremely bumpy side trips.

This however was not my goal – I was going south.

On the way down I saw a lot of the chase traffic and pit activity at the points where the race crossed the main highway. By Catavina the race activity really thickened. I pulled over to hopefully get an update from one of the crews.

Just after stopping, helicopters could be heard approaching – that usually means the racers aren’t far behind. I decided to stay for a few minutes & see if anyone would pass … after five minutes or so, still no racers had come by and the sun was slowly descending … it was time to dump my reserve fuel in & continue south.

Turns out … I didn’t need to do that however…

Not sure if this guy was offering a “950 riders special”, but the cost of purchasing from these jugs wasn’t much more than buying from a regular station :dunno

Fire up the XM and hit the road…

Approaching Guerro Negro is a funny thing. There is a HUGE marker that delineates the line between the northern & southern states there with a military base underneath it. You can see it for MILES. It’s provides a false sense of “I’m almost there”. The road leading up to that point is many miles long and straight as an arrow. If it's a clear day, the ... thing ... is visible the entire time, so you’re “almost there” for nearly 30 minutes…

There’s no fuel right at the checkpoint unless you take a detour into town – I wasn’t interested in that so fueled up at the first option which is about 10 miles or so before reaching the checkpoint.

In addition to fueling up the bike, it was fast approaching dusk & I only had that powerbar-thing & Red Bull in me since 4am, so I opted to fuel myself up for what was going to be a long night.

Good fish tacos – these people were closing up early to go watch the race!

Bike & body fueled up, it was time to burn some miles in the waning daylight…


An interesting thing about a ride like this – there’s only one highway to get through both states of Baja, Mexico. The nature of the event means there’s a lot of chase crews and spectators all using this same stretch of road, at the same time. A strange sense of community, or at least familiarity, develops between the drivers on the way south. Typically this is unstated, other than with a friendly wave as you’re passing. Being on the bike means you’re more prone to “meet” people in this way. Faster = you’ll pass more people, less fuel capacity = more fuel stops where you’ll get passed. Between my fuel stops and shooting photos & such I was passing the same people over & over. The pace aligned on a couple occasions and I was able to meet some of the people on the road at fuel stops and exchange stories & destinations.

The sun set, and shortly before Viscaino, the light dissipated. I mean dissipated. If I remember right, there was virtually no moon – amazing display of stars, but the 950 headlight was really working hard to cut a path through the inky blackness. Picking a random spot in the cloaked desert, I pulled over to put on another layer for the cold(er) ride through the night. Just as I stopped I heard “hey John” from another truck. Turns out it was Des, another rider I’ve met up with before down here who happened to be running support right where I stopped. Desert serendipity. We chatted for a while, discussed the nutty traffic that I was likely to encounter … and watched several near-misses on the highway near the place we stood. As I was still ahead of the 1st bike at this point … I opted to stay just long enough for Des to provide me with a fantastic breakdown of the mileages I had yet to ride through the night from a map he had. The estimated time for KTM’s bike at pit 17 was around 1:30 am or so … I’d be close, but should make it about an hour or so ahead of the bike. From where I was it was another 5-7 hours or so depending on gas lines, traffic, etc… Plus the speeds would be slowing down for the night portion of the ride.

Passing is always a dicey proposition at night on the highways down here. Road markings can be damaged or missing, vehicles sometimes have compromised (or completely busted) lights, and perhaps the greatest danger is the wandering livestock in the road! My closest call was probably the truck that nearly ended itself, and several other vehicles, just outside of Loreto. An hour or so before midnight, I’m pulling out of town after fueling up, following a truck with a camper shell on the back. Just as we start to get out of the town proper and speeds begin to increase, the truck slams on it’s breaks. What really stood out in my mind was not so much the brake lights & skidding truck, but watching the gap appear and then widen between the truck’s bed and camper shell as the forward inertia of the camper shell overtook the skidding truck. It didn’t come off, but the clamps holding that thing on were clearly pretty loose as it lifted and flexed, swinging side-to-side while the truck skid first straight, then swerved into the oncoming lane, sending the approaching car into a skid of it’s own.

I had no idea what had caused the truck to do this … really didn’t care at the time either. I was just trying to avoid becoming part of the tailgate or spending a severely-injured evening in the bed of the truck after making an excessively dramatic entrance into the camper through the closed door. This whole event would later reiterate a little-accepted theory of mine that travel by motorcycle can actually be safer than a car in many instances … with all the cars going every which way during this fray there were very limited choices for 4-wheeled vehicle “escape routes”. The few available options that remained were not really “choices” either – more like “results”. You could avoid hitting the back of the truck by driving off the road (low cliff, concrete poles = big mess). You could try the other lane (skidding oncoming car = more ugliness). You could just hold the brakes & hope to stop in time (best option, but would have been resulting damage from the oncoming traffic that later slid into my lane). Only real solution is to leave PLENTY of space between you & the traffic in front. Flip side of this means you’re never going to pass anything. Seeing as some of the truck traffic has to drive up these hills at a sub-walking pace, that means you’re in for a very, very … very long drive.

950 (& Brembos) to the rescue. The bike scrubbed off enough speed in what seemed like just a few feet, to allow for a quick assessment of what was going on – the truck’s headlights illuminated a narrow escape route to the right, just off the road between the concrete poles & pavement. Just as my field of view cleared the truck enough to see what was going on, the culprit was evident – mules. Or possibly donkeys … they all look the same in the headlights of a skidding truck from the seat of an escaping KTM. Regardless, they could still be seen scurrying in all directions so I’m guessing one had literally jumped in front of the truck.

The amazing thing is – the whole fracas probably took less than 10 seconds to occur & in the end all three vehicles involved, and the crew of animals, were unscathed.

Needless to say, my guard was up a few notches more from this point on…


I had driven this road many times in the past. But the most recent trip was over five years ago. I had done the drive at night as well, but the last time I did a night run through this place was nearly 17 years ago. As the bike banked, sped, and slowed through the mountains south of San Ignacio it started to come back to me. Remembering where particular curves were, dangerous descents, towns, etc … extremely visceral memories started coming back, even in the pitch darkness. It wasn’t anything I was looking at in particular (all I could see was the small patch of asphalt the headlight was revealing in front of me), nor was it the feel of the road (had never done this ride on a bike before) – it was the smell. The desert fragrance varies here to a degree I’d just never noticed before. From leaving the lonely terrain between Guerro Negro, to entering the palm-filled river valley of San Ignacio, to reaching the coast at Santa Rosalia, with no light and being able to only hear your own MP3s or motor droning away, scent was the best clue of where you were. You’ve heard of “driving by braile”, well here’s a new one: driving by … redolence?

Don’t think I’ll be relying on this new navigation technique to get me through new routes anytime soon, but it did at least offer some familiarity to the surroundings. It’s amazing how isolated you can feel while traveling encased in a bubble of darkness that’s rolling through an excessively vast and open landscape.

After arriving in Cuidad Constitution it was time for a last fuel stop and then fire up the GPS to see just where this pit location was. The GPS put me on the right road, but it turned out that finding the pit itself would be far easier than I originally thought … the crowd of several hundred had what seemed like a gigawatt of power in the form of lights, stereos, police car light bars, makeshift taco stands, on & on … it was a scene.

All these guys are just sitting around waiting for [I]something[/I] to happen … as no bikes had arrived yet, when I rolled in, it was to a hero’s welcome. Funny stuff – people cheering, running up to the pit to see what’s going on … all for a guy rolling in on a 950 with a 2-gallon bottle of Gain laundry detergent strapped to the back…


So now parked in relative safety, just over 20 hours since leaving Orange County, it was time to get to work.

The scene at pit 17 was uniquely Baja. Relatively distant from … pretty much anything, yet there were [I]hundreds[/I] of people there to watch the race. Police presence, team support, fans, and makeshift taco stands littered the otherwise barren & dark landscape. The latter group (make shift taco stands) was my next order of business. It had been quite some time & several hundred miles since I’d eaten anything – head tacos and a hot dog … breakfast of champions (it was around 1 am by this point, so I guess it’s an early breakfast).

Our very own pointman was there with his pit crew.

Then the shenanigans begain…

Around 3 am the lights of 9x appear on the outline of the distant mountain in the otherwise inky blackness. Bouncing and jarring their way down the hill, suddenly they make an unusually large jump just a few hundred yards from the pit - pointing, up, down, off to an odd angle or two, then nothing…


Some discussion ensues as we see people walking & running to the location the lights were last seen – just as we start walking over to see what happened, the lights reappear & start heading this way … albeit slower than before.

Bike rolls in & sure enough there was reason to be concerned.


I’m not sure if this phenomenon is unique to Baja, but most people are very surprised when they hear of this for the first time…

Booby traps on the racecourse.

Trenches, walls, course diversions, whatever … anything that will cause … something to happen that’s different than the intended objective of the racer.

Sure enough, 9x ran smack into one of these, sending bike & rider tumbling across the dark Mexican desert.

It wasn’t immediately apparent what injuries the rider had sustained – come to find later that there were broken bones & such involved. Amazing Quinn was able to just shake it off, pick the bike up, and ride it into the pit area.

Seconds after it rolled onto the carpet, the mechanics were on it, stripping broken parts and installing replacements. In what seemed like less than five minutes the bike was race-ready again. Cyril, who had been geared up just in case something like this happened, jumped on and just as fast as the bike had rolled in out of the darkness, it left.

Cyril inspecting the damage:

Stripping off broken parts…

And installing new ones…

Quinn debriefing Cyril about the next portion of racecourse.

The rear fender was an early casualty of the race:

Cyril gets a few final bits of information before flying off into the waning hours of the night.

Once the bike was off, it was time to break down the pit – which was done in short order. Then we were off for the ridiculously foggy night drive (ride for me) to Cabo San Lucas. Both sides of the XD’s shield were dripping wet – only way to see was crack it open slightly and deal with the cold air on your eyes best you could. Even with no shield, the visibility was extremely limited – you could just make out the edge of the pavement, but not much more than that.

The next few hours would consist of feeling my way along the pavement heading south…